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On Wearing Scarves and Other Directorial Decisions: Buried Screenwriter Chris Sparling Makes The Atticus Institute

On Wearing Scarves and Other Directorial Decisions: Buried Screenwriter Chris Sparling Makes The Atticus Institute

Directing

I write just about every day. I sit down, I tune-out, and I pound the keys for anywhere from five to eight hours a day. Sometimes more. Sometimes at night when the world’s asleep. Sometimes in the morning when it seems like everyone ever born is awake (and, like me, trying to find an empty seat at Starbucks).

Writing is my job, my only job, and I’m grateful that it’s been that way for the past six years. But, until last summer working on The Atticus Institute, directing movies was not my job at all. I really wanted it to be, but because I hadn’t directed a film, nobody seemed all that jazzed about ever letting me.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely true? Some people were genuinely on-board with me transitioning into the directing chair, especially when it came to directing my own material. My reps were supportive, and even certain producers seemed cool with the idea. However, what I kept finding, over and over, was that whenever a project finally got close to being “real,” I kept bumping into the same “first-time director” roadblock. In other words, financiers, talent, and some producers were leery about working with someone who hadn’t yet proved himself.

Do I blame them? Of course not. Even when you’re making a low-budget movie, there’s still real money at play, along with people’s reputations. The bottom line: Nobody wants to lose their money, and even less people want to look bad. So, that pretty much led me to the realization that, in order to ever direct a film, I would first have to direct a film. A difficult Catch-22 to navigate, for sure, but far from an impossible one.

The Atticus Institute 1

William Mapother performs a psychic card test with Rya Kihlstedt in The Atticus Institute.

The key to circumventing this conundrum primarily lay in a change of perspective rather than, say, a change in the way I worked or the way I dressed (although, I do admit to almost buying a scarf because it seemed like a lot directors, for reasons unknown, wear scarves – even on top of T-shirts). It couldn’t be about people “letting me” direct a movie; I couldn’t wait for someone’s permission. Refusing to wait for permission doesn’t magically mean your movie will get made. It takes a lot more than positive thinking and decent locker-room speeches. In my case, it required creating a project that would be difficult not to get made. And that is where I landed on The Atticus Institute.

My first consideration was budget. I aimed to create a story that could be told inexpensively. This meant limiting the number of locations, reducing the total number of cast members, and not having to rely on A-list talent to help finance my film. This way, when I approached financiers, their risk was already mitigated by the simple fact that they wouldn’t be spending very much money. The film wouldn’t have to make much money to either break even or, ideally, turn a profit. Like most people, financiers like making money but dislike losing money. No big intellectual breakthrough there, I know, but remembering this simple truth helped shape my project.

A possessed Judith Wistead (Rya Kihlstedt) in The Atticus Institute.

A possessed Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt) in The Atticus Institute.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: “Dude, you tried to sound all DIY like you’re goddamn Shane Carruth and whatnot, but now you’re saying you were out begging people to give you money. Screw you and the high horse you rode in on.” (At least, that’s probably what I would be thinking if I were reading this). And while I can’t exactly say you’re wrong, I can say that: a) I definitely wasn’t begging; b) I would have made my movie for $100 bucks if I had to; and, c) You still need some money to make a movie – and preferably you have more than $100 bucks. Oh yeah, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a unique hook.

The Atticus Institute centers on a case of possession that is not dealt with by the church; rather, it is studied and, ultimately, weaponized by the U.S. military. To the best of my knowledge, there had never been a possession movie that approached its story from this angle. My hope was that this might help separate my movie from the spate of other possession films that have come out in recent years, just as I hoped it might help separate my project from the dozens of others out there on the hunt for financing. Still, the one thing I did know was that, regardless of its hook, the horror/thriller genre is one that remains peerless in terms of fan loyalty. And this definitely mattered.

Having written a few films that sort of fall into this category (Buried and ATM), I learned firsthand how devoted the genre audience is. Similarly, I learned that if you make a movie they don’t like, they’re not shy about letting you know. They’re honest. They don’t pull punches. They don’t pat you on the back and then give you the finger when you’re not looking. But if you make a good movie, they’ll reward you in ways that no other fans will (that sounded a bit pornographic, but you get my point). Because of that, genre films have historically done pretty well – quite consistently – in terms of box office and/or DVD sales. This is not a fact that goes unnoticed by financiers; nor did my passion for the movie I wished to make.

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See, that’s the thing: Inasmuch as I did consider budget, genre, and the like when creating my project, at the end of the day, I wasn’t just making Atticus so I could go on to direct another movie; I was making it because I was passionate about it and passionate about telling the story. That’s what drove me through every step of the process, and that’s what, ultimately, allowed me to make my directorial debut.

That’s how I managed to avoid the Catch-22 and direct a film without having ever before directed one. Had it not worked out this way, I assure you, I would have found a different way, which may or may not have involved wearing a scarf, but certainly wouldn’t have involved asking for anyone’s permission. MM

The Atticus Institute releases on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 20.

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